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August 5, 2009

Badder: The Last Keeper of the Kohn

by Nathaniel Badder | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Peter Kohn, the beloved longtime equipment manager for Middlebury College and other men's lacrosse teams, died Wednesday from complications stemming from a heart attack. He was 77.

Peter Kohn: 1931-2009
LM Archives: Red Carpet for Kohn

This is not the first time I’ve written about Peter Kohn. I hope it won’t be the last.

Kohn, a lacrosse legend and once-in-a-generation individual, passed away Wednesday morning at University of Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia. He had suffered a heart attack while on a fishing trip over the weekend near his home in Cape May, N.J. He was 77.

Ironic, isn’t it, that a guy with such a big heart passed away because his could no longer function properly?

Sad, isn’t it, that the lacrosse world should lose such a warm, compassionate and inspiring figure?

Difficult, isn’t it, to rationalize how a guy who we all believed to be indestructible could take his final breaths?

Peter Kohn is one of the most beloved and unique figures in the lacrosse world. For 50 years he has been connected to the sport. A recent subject of a documentary chronicling his life, Kohn started as a field manager for the Park School in Baltimore in 1954. He was the manager of U.S. teams from 1978 to 1998, for the North-South All-Star game for over 25 years, for club teams in the United States Club Lacrosse Association for over 20 years and for Middlebury College from 1981 to 2003.

The documentary’s title, Keeper of the Kohn, refers to the Middlebury player designated each year to keep Kohn’s company and look after him. I was one of them.

(Click here to read more about Peter's big night -- the documentary's 2005 premiere at Baltimore's historic Senator Theatre -- from the June 2005 issue of Lacrosse Magazine.)

The lacrosse field at Middlebury, where I played, is named in his honor.

Peter used to stand sentry to misfired balls as we warmed up and shot on goal before practice. And as anyone who has ever watched college kids shoot can attest, the only safe place to stand is actually inside of the goal. But Pete would station himself on the end line, directly behind the cage, eager eyes trained on everything but the whirlwind of balls sailing past him. 

In such a precarious spot, you might expect that Pete would be a frequent target for errant shots. He wasn’t. Only the occasional skudded ball would hit him. Unfailingly, it would only wing him and would be met by a quick but guttural “Argh” before he turned around to fetch it.

We came to believe that a force field that surrounded him. We figured it followed him off of the lacrosse field as well. We thought he’d live forever.

His passing provides a truly sobering moment.

If you never had the great pleasure of meeting Peter Kohn, sharing a messy ice cream cone with him or listening to him go on and on and on about train schedules or baseball players’ middle names, then you have really missed a special experience. Peter was enshrined in the National Lacrosse Hall of Frame in 2004 despite never picking up a stick – check that; he picked up many sticks as the selfless, dedicated manager for countless teams – or putting on a helmet.   

How many people can say that? That their impact was so large as to garner a sport’s highest recognition possible without ever playing, coaching or officiating a single game?

It’s altogether humbling.

Peter was many things -- some quirky, some funny, and some sad.

He was warm. He was generous. He was sharp.

He was developmentally disabled. 

Throughout his life, Peter struggled mightily to assert and maintain his own independence, but gave so willingly to others -- especially those near and dear to him -- who were losing theirs. He could recite for you the starting lineups from Game 4 of the 1962 World Series, but might not be able to remember your name until your junior year (that is, unless you were a goalie).

On a trip to England during my freshman year, he wowed us with a full biography of each of the individuals buried in Westminster Abbey, and then promptly fell asleep during a live session of Parliament at which his snoring became so obnoxious that he was asked to vacate the premises.

He passed out chewing gum and cold towels before, during, and after heated lacrosse contests.

He lined up sticks and ferried water jugs, performing each menial task -- which many of us might find untenable or downright demeaning -- with the sort of care normally reserved for newborns.

He adored pictures, and was an expert at including his thumb in the frame of just about every picture he snapped with his trademark disposable cameras. He piled binders full of them by the walls of his apartment.

He loved to sing, the Park School song and I’ve Been Working on the Railroad being his two finest crowd-pleasers. (It seems all too fitting now that the latter was always simply, but affectionately, called Dinah, an inaccurate tribute to the song’s emphatic and familiar tag line.)

And, above all, Peter loved people and had countless friends – many, many more than you or I could ever hope to amass in a couple of lifetimes. And, it is you, his friends, whom we invite to share your favorite Peter Kohn stories below. Together, we can create a living homage to a man who touched and inspired so many.

Rest in peace, Peter. Viva la Kohn!

May your final keeper welcome you with open arms and open mic.


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